The hall was empty when I slipped into it, and I grabbed onto the Fortuna coin once more as I tried to decide which way to go. Left felt luckier, though it was the way we’d come from, and I quietly crept down the hall. I continued on like that, holding onto the coin and letting it guide me, always following my first instinct.
It took a while before the fear faded enough for me to move again. I crept out from behind the couch carefully, taking in the wreckage of the once beautiful room. There was broken glass, loose feathers, and even blood scattered across the room. Several pieces of furniture had been smashed, and I flinched as my mind matched the wreckage with the thuds and crashes I’d heard earlier.
I moved towards an opened but undamaged armoire; had someone been hiding in it? I replayed the fight in my head. Baron must have tried to hide in plain sight, posing as a decoration. Lilith had also likely hidden in crow form, and probably hadn’t shifted back during the fight. Which left Nixie, who had first spoken from this side of the room.
I pulled the doors open further, finding coats and scarves and, tucked in one corner, the set of glowing bottles Nixie had grabbed. She’d called them elemental grenades and said that each color was different, but she hadn’t explained them further. I grabbed them anyway; it just felt like the right thing to do. I scanned the room again, remembering one of the other objects Nixie had taken from Aunt Pen’s tower and the clatter I’d heard when Amos grabbed her.
At first, I didn’t see anything that wasn’t broken, but I also didn’t see anything that looked like it had been a box, so I decided to peek under what was left of the furniture. In the end, I found it tucked under the splintered remains of an ornate end table. Nixie’s box, which she said was a prison, and Amos had said only a human could use.
The box didn’t look very special; it was small enough to fit in my hand, made out of light wood with a carving of a Celtic knot on the top. As far as I could tell there was no way to open it, and while I could feel its power, I didn’t know how to trigger it. I sighed, the fear from earlier coming back as I slipped the box into my pocket anyway.
I was all alone in a strange world, and the only people who could help me were captured. I thought of Macey, safe in the tower with Alexei. Would the plan have worked if I’d stayed with her instead? I thought about trying to get back to her, but I didn’t know the way, and there was no amount of dumb luck that would get me back to the human world, magic coin or not.
Thinking of the coin, I slipped my hand into my pocket, rubbing it between two fingers. Was it the reason I hadn’t been caught with everyone else? And, more importantly, would it be enough to help me slip through the mansion undetected?
I felt a warm pulse of magic wash over me at the question and had the sudden feeling that yes, it could do that. I thought back to Lilith’s advice when I picked the coin, telling me to follow my first instinct. The coin had called to me then, and it seemed like it was calling to me now, telling me what to do. I took a deep breath, then turned and made my way to the door. It was time to follow my gut.
The change was instant. As dim as the woods had seemed before, they were even darker now, and when I looked up I could no longer see the sky above me, but it didn’t seem like it was day anymore. When I turned back I could still see the castle, and it was even still day there, but everything past the fence was foggy and seemed distant. Baron stepped through behind me, and as he stepped through he became clearer. It was a strange thing to watch, and I turned back to look at the woods instead.
The feeling of power was intensified here, and I felt other kinds of magic besides the trees. The trees were tall, and it almost seemed like they moved every time I looked away from them. There was a clear path leading away from the fence, but it branched off the further we moved from the fence. Everything about this place seemed unnatural to me, and I was very glad that I wasn’t alone.
Lilith was leading now, and no matter how many times the trail split she never seemed unsure of where to go. It was quiet as we walked, quieter than any forest ought to be, and while we saw no creatures of any kind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched. The forest didn’t change as we walked, and the only way I could tell that we’d moved was that I could no longer see the fence behind me, which didn’t really make me feel any better. I almost thought we must have gotten lost, but the others showed no signs of unease past their extra alertness. Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 11
After all the noise of the night before, I’d expected there to be a little damage to the staircase outside the door, but given how firmly shut the door had stayed I had figured the rest of the hall would be similarly resilient. I was very wrong.
The walls were covered in large scratches and scorch marks, and what was left of the staircase was mostly just rubble.
“Careful going down, Dillon,” Nixie said, leading the way down. I didn’t know how she felt comfortable walking down the stairs barefoot, but I very thankful for my sneakers as I picked my way around the rubble. As soon as we had all made it through the door Macey shut it behind us, and the hallway was plunged into darkness. It was quiet except for the sound of the locks clicking into place, and I wondered if the others were taking a moment to let their eyes adjust too. Could crows see in the dark? Or did that not matter, because they were technically magical creatures?
I could see the faintest light from up ahead, but the stairs curved so much that it didn’t really help me. I could barely even see my own hand in front of my face, let alone a safe path down the stairs. It made me wish I’d thought to take the candle with me, at least then I’d have something to see by. Although… Nixie never said that I had to have a candle to make fire. Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 10
“I did it!” I grinned at Nixie, and she smiled back at me, but she looked a little resigned too.
“So you did,” she said. “Alright, you can head out with us.”
“Try not to die horribly,” Lilith added. “Your aunt would be rather cross with us.”
It turns out that magic is a little more difficult than it looks in the movies, but that mostly has to do with how finicky artifacts are. The first artifact Nixie gave me was a pocket watch that was supposed to be able to freeze objects and enemies in mid-air. The plan was for her and Baron to throw apples at me and see if I could stop them from hitting me. I didn’t like the plan, but I figured if I argued I wouldn’t get to help, so I agreed and moved away from the window.
“Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work for you right away,” Nixie said. “Artifacts have to be attuned to your energy before they’ll work properly, and some of them may not be able to do so right away, or at all, in some cases.”
“What cases are those?” Macey asked, eyeing the watch like it might bite her, and holding up the recipe book like a shield. I thought that was silly since nobody was going to throw fruit at her.
“Sometimes artifacts grow attached to their users, and then they won’t work correctly for anyone else,” Baron said. “Other times their energy just isn’t meant to match up with their would be user. There are ways to test for that other than just trying to use the artifacts, but we don’t really have time for that.”
“Okay, so how is this watch supposed to work then? Like is there a word, or—Ow! Hey!” Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 8
“The first thing you need to know is that magic is real, and it’s very, very dangerous,” Nixie said. “There are two worlds, one for humans and one for magical creatures, and the places where those worlds meet have to be guarded.”
“This castle and the forest around it is one of those places,” Baron said. “Your aunt is the Caretaker, and the fence is the border. So long as the fence was intact, the magic of the Otherworld was contained. When it was broken, a path between the worlds was opened, and magical creatures started coming through.”
“They can’t stay past dawn though,” Nixie said, “not without a blessing from the Caretaker, at least. But they’ll be back when the sun goes down, and if they ever get in here they won’t need the Caretaker at all.”
“It’s a good thing you were able to get here before the others,” Baron said. “Only the Caretaker can open the room from outside, but if you hadn’t been able to lock the door again, or if you’d unlocked it…”
He trailed off, but he didn’t need to tell us what would have happened for us to be afraid of it. Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 7
After all the noise of the night before, I think it was the silence that woke me up. The rain had finally stopped, and the world had finally gone quiet after the wild panic of the night before. The candles around the room had gone out while we slept, but now that the sun was up there was dim light shining through the curtains. The door was still locked, and it seemed undamaged despite the best efforts of whatever had attacked the room earlier.
Now that there was nothing trying to force its way in, I felt safe enough to investigate the room. The wood cabinet was locked up tight, but the work table had more then enough weird things on it for me. Besides the cauldron, there was an assortment of herbs and stones, and several rows of shelves holding dozens of little bottles filled with powders, liquids, and what appeared to be bones. Each bottle was labeled in Aunt Pen’s neat script, but not in English. There was also a book filled with recipes, but none of them looked like they made food. At least, I hoped they weren’t food.
Macey yawned behind me, and I turned to see her rubbing her eyes as she woke up. Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 6
The moment the sky went dark, Aunt Pen was grabbing us both and pulling us out of the room. I could hear howling from outside, followed by the familiar cawing of crows, and while the noises scared me, the panicked look on Aunt Pen’s face was what kept me from asking questions. Her face had lost all color, and as she pulled us through the halls and up the stairs she kept looking around like she expected something to jump out of the shadows at us.
When we got to the third floor, Aunt Pen started leading us down a very familiar hallway. It was where we’d first started looking for the passage to the tower, and when Aunt Pen stopped in front of that blank wall it occurred to me that she might not have been completely honest when she said she’d never found the passageways.
There was a crash behind us, and Macey and I turned to see a crow had crashed through a window down the hall. Before I could even try to identify him though, there was a scraping sound, and we turned again to see the stone wall opening up to reveal a staircase. Aunt Pen grabbed us and pushed us through the opening. Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 5
The rain kept on for the next three days. Macey and I explored every room we could get into: spare bedrooms, parlors, a study. The first day was all hide and seek, and while there were plenty of great places for us to hide, with only two of us it got boring quickly, with the seeker often being unable to find the other. Hiding got boring when no one was around to find you. After I hid behind a couch and under a curtain, Macey spent an hour trying and failing to find me, so we called off the game until we could get more players. On the second day we stayed together and explored what we could, even venturing into the basement to see if there was a dungeon, but we only managed to find the wine cellar before Macey insisted on going back upstairs.
The sky had darkened with the rain, but it wasn’t until the sun started to go down that the large windows that lined the ballroom no longer provided enough light for us to see by. There were no light switches anywhere that we could see, so Macey was forced to end her impromptu ball in favor of finding Aunt Pen for dinner.
As Macey and I made our way towards the kitchen the rain only seemed to grow heavier, beating on the windows with new force. In the time it took us to reach the kitchen, the noise of the storm had swelled so loud it was almost enough to drown out the voices arguing in the kitchen. I stopped upon hearing them and pulled Macey back from the open door when she didn’t. Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 3
The trouble started when Aunt Pen set us loose while she worked on the library. We were too young to be helpful, and she didn’t have anyone to watch us, so we were given instructions not to bother her and to be in the kitchen at noon and at six for lunch and dinner. Macey took this as a sign to play princess, and I took this as a sign that I was on my own when it came to getting out of it.
So while Macey ran off to get dressed, I decided to explore the castle grounds. The lake was huge, or at least it seemed so to me, and there was a short pier with a little wooden boat tied to it. It would have been perfect for swimming, but the water was freezing. It was like trying to wade through ice water, and I couldn’t seem to adjust to the temperature, even after standing in the lake for five minutes.
The lake was a bust, but it was also the most interesting thing within the fence. Aunt Pen’s one rule was still stuck in my head, but I figured that I could still investigate it, so I left the lake and walked to the edge of the forest. When I reached the fence, a crow landed on the fence next to me. It was large and familiar, so I smiled at him.
“Hi Baron! I don’t have any meat for you right now, I’m sorry.”
Baron cawed softly at me, and I took it as a sign that he forgave me.
“I was going to walk the perimeter though; do you want to come with me?”
Baron cawed again, hopping along the fence and then turning to look back at me. I grinned back and started walking, with Baron following along on the fence.
“I’m glad I’ve got you to keep me company this summer; it seems like it might get kind of lonely here. Aunt Pen is cool, but she’s really busy, and Macey and me don’t get along very well.”
Baron cawed sympathetically.
“Do you have a sister, Baron?”
Baron cawed again, and then he was joined on the fence by a smaller crow, who cawed a greeting at me.
“Hello! Are you Baron’s sister? Wait, Aunt Pen introduced us yesterday, didn’t she? Your name is Nixie, right?”
Nixie cawed, hopping around and bobbing her head, almost like she was nodding.
“It’s nice to officially meet you, Nixie. I’m Dillon.”
Nixie cawed again, and the three of us walked on together. We followed the fence around the castle, until I could no longer see the lake. The forest trees were different from the trees inside the fence. The treeline was surprisingly orderly, for a forest. Nothing grew past the shade of the trees, and the trees didn’t grow within a foot of the fence. There were no tree branches hanging over the fence either, and I wondered if Aunt Pen trimmed everything back. It seemed like a silly thing to spend time on, and I didn’t think she could have found the time anyhow, but someone must be doing it.
As I studied the treeline, I noticed something glimmering a few feet passed the fence. It was bright and gold and beautiful, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was, no matter how much I stared at it. Nixie and Baron were cawing again, frantically this time, but the noise seemed far away and unimportant. All that mattered was the glimmer. It wasn’t very far in, and if I hopped over the fence I knew I could get it. It wouldn’t be hard. It wasn’t a big fence; it was more of a border than a barrier. I could be over and back in seconds. I just needed to get the glimmer.
“Dillon!” Suddenly there were arms around me, and Aunt Pen was hauling me back from the fence, and I felt like a veil had been lifted. Nixie and Baron were still cawing, loud and panicked, and they’d been joined by several other crows too. I didn’t understand how I could have ignored them.
Aunt Pen breathed a sigh of relief. “Dillon, you scared me. What did I say about going over the fence?”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Pen. I was just trying to get the…” I turned back to point out the glimmer, but it was gone. It was like it had never been there at all.
“There’s nothing in the woods but trees, Dillon. Now come inside. It’s going to rain soon.”
Aunt Pen led me back inside, and while it hadn’t looked like rain to me, it started coming down shortly after we got back inside.
“Well, I’d say that’ll be the end of playing outside today. Why don’t you go find your sister? She was looking for you earlier. I think she’s in the ballroom.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the ballroom, getting yelled at by Macey for stepping on her feet.
Every summer for the past three years my sister Macey and I have stayed with our Aunt Penelope in Scotland. It started because Macey was having a princess phase and found out that the reason we never saw Aunt Pen was because she was restoring a castle. I hadn’t really wanted to go back then (Scotland was a long way from Virginia and I was pretty sure castles were for girls anyway), but Dad wasn’t about to send one of us and not the other, so I was overruled on the matter. So when I was ten and Macey was twelve, we flew to Glasgow and saw Aunt Pen for the first time since she’d left the US.
“Macey! Dillon! Oh, look how big you’ve gotten!”
Aunt Pen started fussing over us immediately, ruffling my hair and fawning over Macey’s princess dress. She was an eccentric lady, too. Every move she made was accompanied by the clinking of her bright gold bangles, and her dress was maroon with long dragging sleeves. Her nails were long and painted red, and her hair was pulled back by a flowered headband. Before we got to the castle we stopped in a nearby village, and she bought us each a cinnamon bun before going to the butcher and getting a bag of scraps. It smelled awful, and when Macey asked what they were there for, Aunt Pen just smiled at her, which put us both on edge.
Aunt Pen’s castle was about five miles from the village. The road curved through the woods, and the trees were so tall that we couldn’t see the castle until we were right in front of it. It was a large building made of stone, built at the bottom of a hill and overlooking a big lake. It was old, but it looked well taken care of, and I could feel Macey’s excitement finally rubbing off on me. As soon as the car was parked we jumped out, racing to the doors, Aunt Pen trailing behind.
“Just a moment, kids!” Aunt Pen called after us. “I want to show you something.”
We followed Aunt Pen around the side of the castle, towards the treeline. There was a wooden fence separating the castle grounds from the forest, which was dark and made me uneasy. Aunt Pen whistled. For a moment nothing happened, and then suddenly crows started lining up on the fence, cawing as they landed and eyeing us curiously. Aunt Pen started pulling the scrap meat out of her bag and feeding them one by one.
“This is Macey and Dillon, my niece and nephew. They’ll be spending the summer here.”
“Er, Aunt Pen? Are you talking to the crows?” Macey looked mildly terrified, and I couldn’t help but feel the same. One of the larger crows cawed at us, and Macey took a step back.
“Yes dear, crows are very clever and very loyal. One never needs to fear if they’ve befriended the crows. Would you like to feed them?”
Macey was horrified, but I was curious. The crows were a little bit creepy, but Aunt Pen seemed so at ease with them that I couldn’t help but feel more at ease too. So I nodded, and I reached into her bag of scraps.
“Hold it by the very edge, and reach out carefully,” Aunt Pen instructed, guiding me towards the large crow. “This is Baron; he’s the largest crow in the murder.”
“Murder?” Macey asked.
“Yes, that’s what a flock of crows is called, dear,” Aunt Pen said. “Now say hello and introduce yourself. Then give him the meat.”
“Hi Baron,” I said, only feeling a little bit silly talking to a crow. “I’m Dillon. It’s nice to meet you.”
Baron cawed at me, then snatched the meat out of my hand and scarfed it down in seconds. Baron cawed some more, and I smiled at him in return.
“Well done, Dillon! I think he likes you. Would you like to try, Macey?”
“She’s too scared to try,” I said, grinning smugly. Macey glared back at me.
“I’m not scared! If you can do it, I can too!” Then Macey marched forward and grabbed a piece of meat, only looking slightly disgusted by the feeling of it.
Aunt Pen led her to a smaller crow and had her hold her hand out. “This is Nixie. Go ahead and say hello, dear.”
“Hi Nixie, I’m Macey! Your name is really pretty,” Macey said, holding out the scrap meat. Nixie cawed softly, then grabbed the meat. Macey jumped a bit when she did, and Nixie cawed at her again.
“Well done, Macey! You two are going to be very popular; I can already tell,” Aunt Pen said, turning to look at the sunset and frowning. “It’s getting a bit late, so we’ll have to head inside now. While we’re out here though, I need to tell you the most important rule of staying here with me.
“See this fence? It goes all the way around the castle grounds. It is very important that you don’t cross it without me. The woods are tricky to navigate, and as you might have noticed during the drive up, the castle isn’t visible if you get too far away. So stay out of the trees, alright?”
“Sure thing Aunt Pen!” Macey said, smiling.
“Good,” Aunt Pen said, returning her smile. “Now let’s head inside and get washed up for dinner.”
We followed after her, and I quickly forgot about crows and forests and rules. For that night, all that mattered was me and my sister and our joint effort to keep Aunt Pen from making haggis for dinner. It was the first simple night we had at the castle, and, though we didn’t know it then, the last simple night.